Juan Soto “Human Wildcat”

Gallant Fight with Desperadoes in the Panoche Mountains One of the Desperadoes Killed … Others Captured.

Juan Soto ( courtesy of California State Library)

Juan Soto ( courtesy of California State Library)

Some two months ago Sheriff Morse of this county obtained certain information of the Mexican bandits who murdered Otto Ludovici last Winter at Scott’s store in Sunol Valley, but after chasing them several days through the Santa Cruz Mountains they made their escape. One of these, the individual who committed the murder, was named Juan Soto, was a complete type of Mexican bandit, six feet two inches in stature, weighed over two hundred pounds, and was regarded as the worst man of that class who has lived since the famous Joaquin Murietta. He was the leader of a desperate band who had their rendezvous in the mountains southeast of Gilroy, and had committed various depredations in four or five of the surrounding counties. Morse had determined to capture the formidable Soto, dead or alive, but as we have related, his first expedition was fruitless. Still the hazardous pursuit was continued, and measures known only to himself were taken to obtain the necessary information in relation to the robbers’ haunts.


Last week, Mr. Morse heard of the desperadoes as being somewhere in the mountains about fifty miles southeast of Gilroy, and started forth. At San Jose, he obtained the company and assistance of Sheriff Harris, together with a small posse of reliable men, and leaving San Jose in two parties, they met at the Mountain House, in Pacheco Pass. There they obtained a guide, who piloted them along the wilderness ridges to Los Banos canon, thence a shepherd showed them the way to a small valley in the Panoche Mountains, which is called Saucelito (Sausalito), and is the rendezvous of Mexican thieves, murderers and others who have fled from justice. It is full fifty miles away from civilization, in dry rocky mountains, where white men seldom or never pass.



From the top of the mountain, the guide showed them three houses or cabins in the valley, and then made his own way back, not wishing to be seen or recognized by the dangerous Inhabitants. Morse and his party divided into three divisions, and descended. Sheriff Harris and three men were to go to one cabin designated three others were directed to a second house, and Morse and Capt. Winchell headed for the third. Having reached the valley, Morse and Winchell rode up to the house, and seeing a Mexican at a corral some fifty yards off, asked for water, and were directed to the house, the Mexican going with them and not seeming to suspect the nature of their business. They did not expect to find the bandits at that place, supposing them to be in the canon six miles further on, and having hitched their horses at the corral, some distance from the house, Mr. Morse unfortunately left his rifle hanging on the saddle. The purpose of visiting the cabins was to capture the men in sight and prevent them from conveying information to the desperadoes, who were supposed to be in the canon.


Henry Nicholson Morse

Henry Nicholson Morse

On entering the door, Mr. Morse saw the man he was after sitting at a table, instantly covered him with his revolver and ordered him to throw up his hands. Soto refused, and sat sullenly watching his chance for a spring, not daring to move for his pistol. Morse ordered him three times to hold up his hands, and keeping his eye steadily on the wretch, drew out a pair of handcuffs and directed Winchell to approach and put them on. At that moment a stout Mexican woman seized Morse’s pistol arm, a man grabbed the other, and while his aim was deranged, Soto sprang behind a third person, uttering a fierce oath and drawing his own pistol. Morse tore loose from them, and shot over the head of the man in front and through Soto’s hat, knocking it off. Finding himself surrounded by the desperate inhabitants of the cabin he sprang out of the door, and while on the porch, Soto twice got the drop on him,” and he stepped round the corner of the house, where the fighting commenced in good earnest, if it had not been tolerably lively before. Each fired four shots, with effect as often as Soto brought his pistol down to a level, Morse would drop and the ball pass over. At this point in the conflict, Winchell, having procured a double-barreled shot-gun, came round the house, fired and missed. Soto then ran into the house and Morse made for his horse to get his Henry rifle. Soto came out with a big revolver in each hand and ran for his horse which was hitched near by the horse, being frightened by the firing, tore away, and Soto not being able to catch the animal, ran down the hill for another horse some distance off, Intending to make his escape.


In the meantime Morse having got possession of his rifle, fired at the fugitive about 160 yards off, and shot him through the right shoulder. Soto staggered with the wound and at once returned toward Morse, with a pistol in each hand. At this point Sheriff Harris, having heard the firing, came up at full speed, and seeing tho situation of things, fired at Soto with his Spencer rifle, but missed his aim; Soto rushed on toward Morse, who, getting another chance, fired again, shot the desperado through the forehead and tore the whole top of his head off. This ended one of the most exciting and terrific combats we have ever heard of, and which rid the settlements of a most pestilent and dangerous scourge.


Photo from the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum

Vigilante style hanging Santa Cruz Natural History Museum

Soto, as we have already stated, was a large and powerful man, a complete type of the traditional Mexican bandit, with long, black hair, heavy, busby eyebrows, large eyes of an undefined color, and had altogether a tigerish aspect. He had served two terms in the State Prison, and was generally regarded as the most formidable and desperate  character living on this coast. He was known to all the Mexican inhabitants In the lower counties, and was held in such dread that few or none of them dared to offend him or make .known his hiding places. It appears that, like many other celebrated men of his sort, he at length fell a victim of the ruling passion of mankind, having come from the rendezvous to visit certain seductive senoritas in that secluded valley, where he had the ill luck to encounter the redoubtable and vengeful Morse. The rest of the gang had returned to headquarters, leaving the hapless chief in the society of his lady-love. „It must be said for the dare-devil of  the mountains that he made one of the most gallant fights on record, and fell in conflict with a foeman worthy of his lion-like courage. The slayer, having secured his splendid black horse and his three formidable revolvers, left him to be buried by his Mexican friends, who all through tho fight manifested very little excitement, and seemed to regard the bloody work as an incident of their wild life. The old woman made some little outcry, but the girls manifested the utmost composure.


The party passed on to the big canon, taking prisoners all the Mexicans they met with, and among them an escaped prisoner from Santa Cruz, Ambrosio Gonzales, a petty cattle-stealer, or something of that kind; but he was regarded as ignoble prey, after the big chief, and was sent ignominiously to Jail.


It may be added that he has distinguished himself by one or the most daring and desperate acts that has ever been performed in the history of detective work on the Pacific Coast, and his own life has been preserved only by the manifestation of astonishing self-possession and presence of mind. It so happened that circumstances placed him in the focus of danger, out of reach of his companions, where he had to rely wholly upon that steadfast courage and steadiness of nerve which have given him deserved celebrity among the foremost detective officers of the country. He bad previously been through many perilous adventures among the more desperate characters of California, but we suppose the hand-to-hand and long-continued conflict with the chief of the brigands was the most exciting and desperate of all.

This article was from the Daily Alta newspaper May 14th 1871.

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